My mom reads mysteries, nothing else. Over the years, I’ve gained a fair bit of knowledge about the genre from performing reader’s advisory for her to bring home books she would enjoy. When a book is especially enticing, I will also try to read it. Such was the case with Cassandra Chan’s debut novel The Young Widow and, now, her second Bethancourt and Gibbons mystery Village Affairs (2006).
Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons usually works on cases surrounding the London area under Detective Chiefe Inspector Carmichael. However, when a small town in the English Cotswolds delegates an investigation to Scotland Yard, Gibbons finds himself driving the Chipping Chedding to investigate.
Man-about-town Philip Bethancourt, Gibbons’ close friend (though not close to Jack’s social status), is in Chipping Chedding before the investigation starts accompanying his girlfriend, Marla Tate, on one of her fashion shoots. Already being on the scene, Bethancourt sees no reason to not try and help the police investigation along. Bethancourt has, after all, been known to help Gibbons in past cases–no matter how much his dealings with murder might enrage Marla.
In the beginning, the police are hard-pressed to even say there was a crime. The middle-aged victim, Bingham, appears to have suffered from an unfortunate accident rather than foul play. As Gibbons and Carmichael go about tying up loose ends, they unearth more questions than answers. Who was the secret girlfriend that Bingham had driven to see on the night of his death? How had the quiet man managed to hide his vast fortune from all of his neighbors? Even though evidence is thin, it begins to seem that this routine investigation of accident is fast becoming a murder investigation.
The primary risk of a mystery series is that the plots, and on some level the characters, will veer toward the formulaic. Happily, Chan has no such problems. Village Affairs creates an entirely different plot and, to a lesser extent, a different tone than that found in The Young Widow. Even the landscape, Chipping Chedding instead of London, is unique.
While this novel continues to deal with Gibbons’ and particularly Bethancourt’s personal lives, Chan also dedicates a fair bit of time to creating entertaining characters to populate the story. A personal favorite is Clarence Astley-Cooper who acts as Bethancourt’s gracious if eccentric host during the investigation.
My only qualm is that Jack Gibbons, my favorite of the duo, did not get as much “air time” during this installment as during The Young Widow though, of course, both characters were still extremely entertaining. Chan’s unique verve and dry wit are once again present in her dialogue, once again providing a unique writing style in Village Affairs.
It was also interesting to see more about Philip and his girlfriend Marla, who actually plays an active role in the investigation this time. Their relationship, falling somewhere between ideal and dysfunctional, adds an interesting facet to Bethancourt’s otherwise impeccably together character while acting as a foil to Gibbons (whom Marla hates). Unlike Bethancourt or Gibbons, Marla still seems to be proving herself as a character worthy of continuous appearances. Time will tell if her part will grow more prominent or less as the series continues.
While the core plot of Village Affairs is entirely self-contained, readers would be advised to start the series at the beginning as certain recurring themes might be spoilers if read out of order. Bethancourt and Gibbons can next be seen in Trick of the Mind (2008).